The time we spend on Earth is precious and quite limited. Therefore, it is essential to keep family ties strong, even if it means making sacrifices. A very special person - my grandmother - helped me realize that family should always come first.
Grandma Ida and Grandpa Pete lived a fairy-tale romance. They had the utmost respect for each other and enjoyed their life together. She loved to cook, he loved to eat. They were both interested in music, dance and sports. Their time together was cut short by my grandfather's death; Ida was left a widow at the age of 52. A controlled diabetic, her health worsened after his death. She would often say, "It feels like I lost my right arm."
Within five years, she had suffered three strokes and undergone two heart procedures, spending much time in the hospital. Afraid of being alone at night, she often slept at our house. I guess word got out because her house was vandalized and all her jewelry, including her wedding ring, were stolen. Even though I was only five years old, I vividly remember the fear, coupled with sadness, that consumed her. It was then that she came to live with us permanently.
Though she had some paralysis on her right arm from the strokes, my grandmother still could walk, talk and help with the cooking. Because she had trouble climbing stairs, she slept in a hospital bed in our living room. Occasionally, her sisters and friends would take her to lunch or grocery shopping, but most of the time, she stayed home and watched TV.
Two years ago something happened that completely changed my grandma's life, as well as my family's. At first, it seemed as if she had a cold, but then her breathing became very labored and her doctor admitted her to the hospital. We were told she had pneumonia and many precautions were taken to prevent complications. Soon she was in congestive heart failure, which made her kidneys fail. As a result, a major decision was forced on my mother: should Ida go on kidney dialysis, or should nature run its course?
My grandmother was slipping away. Her specialist warned my family that without functioning kidneys, the toxins in her blood would kill her. My mother followed the doctor's suggestion with miraculous results - the dialysis not only filtered out the toxins, but also removed the fluid from her heart, enabling her to breathe better. Amazingly, her kidney functions improved and she was taken off dialysis.
Just as we breathed a sigh of relief, Grandma's potassium level became dangerously high. Although she was given medication, within an hour she went into a psychotic state. It was unbelievable how my grandmother was transformed into a screaming, delirious person. Against our wishes, my grandma was tied to her bed for safety. All four of her limbs struggled to get free like an animal caught in a trap. I tried to look into her eyes to decipher what was happening in her mind, but all she did was stare past me. She was unable to communicate, and her delusions prevented her from eating. Once again, my mother was faced with a difficult decision. Did she really want her mother kept alive with a feeding tube? It was hard to comprehend, since Grandma had lived her life surrounded by delicious Italian food. I knew was that I wanted my grandmother alive.
After three weeks, the potassium dissipated from my grandmother's body. The damage, however, left her in a deplorable physical condition.
My grandmother was finally released from the hospital after four months with a feeding tube, the inability to walk and incontinent. Caring for her has become more difficult, and I will be the first to admit that it has caused our family a lot of stress. My mother, forced to quit teaching, now devotes all her time to caring for her. Often my mother feels like a prisoner in her own home since it is so hard to leave Grandma alone for more than a couple hours. To give my mother a break, I help with Grandma's tube feedings, give her insulin shots, and change her diaper. Although she is confined to her bed, we try to sit her in a wheelchair a few hours each day. Her interests haven't changed - she still loves to watch the cooking channel and tries to help with cooking. Despite her health problems, my grandma remains the fun-loving person she has always been.
It is hard to fight back the tears when I look at my grandmother's face. Tracing the wrinkles allows me to delve into the joys and hardships she has experienced in her 74 years. Often my memory drifts back to when she could cook, walk and hold conversations. Sometimes I find myself complaining about her, but then I understand what I am doing for her is appreciated. I have also come to realize that sometimes certain things must be done with no questions asked.
People often ask, "Why don't you just put her in a nursing home?" We keep her with us because we care - because we know it is the right thing to do. Sure, it would be easier to have a nursing home bear the burden of caring for her, but I cannot imagine what our house would be like without her.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.